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Zanele Kumalo

May 4, 2023

How sustainable is denim?

Apparently we love the blues so much that according to an article series published in Fashion Revolution about the future of the fabric, we’ll buy up to four pairs a year. And that’s just if we’re the average consumer.

Demand has created a denim industry that was worth $90 billion in 2019 and is expected to go up by another 15 billion by 2023, according to Besides inspiring Lana Del Rey to write “Blue Jeans” and Daniel Caesar to sing about it in “Japanese Denim, after doing a quick Google search I discovered that the fabric has been immortalised in at least 50 pop songs.

It will be interesting to see if its appeal and buying patterns change this year. Didn’t most of us ignore our jeans in favour of sweatpants during lockdown? If the work-from-home trend hasn’t influenced the sale of jeans, we know the sustainability movement has, as we all pay closer attention to what it takes to get those “will last me all my life, oh yes” blue jeans on our bodies.

Farm to factory

First up we need to look at how cotton is grown. A WWF article says that “conventional production practices for cotton involve the application of substantial fertilisers and pesticides.” These pesticides not only “threaten the quality of soil and water, as well as the health of biodiversity in and downstream from the fields,” but could affect the health of workers who work with the material as well as you, the wearer.

The Washington Post exposed “the dirty secret about your clothes” and shared that the chemical dyes used to colour your jeans “can include compounds” that “range from chlorine bleach to known carcinogens such as arylamines”, and are also potentially cancerous. On top of that, “if they aren’t treated properly, they can pollute the water supply.”

To boot, WWF adds that it takes 20 000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton – enough to make one T-shirt and one pair of jeans.

Factory to fashion outlet

Tshepo Mohlala, better known as Tshepo the Jeanmaker, whose denim has made it into the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle’s wardrobe, is well aware of the cost of the material to the planet. He says he pays special consideration to where their fabric, yarns and materials come from in order to ensure accountability and transparency.

They’ve recently started using a new label that's made from recycled pineapple skins and his factory reuses the water in the dyeing process so it's not wasted or fed through rivers. “The same water can be used for up to five different dyeing cycles and gets cleaned and reused to reduce water usage and waste,” he says.

Global denim brands like Levi’s and Gap have also announced new ways of producing clothing by pledging to have 80% of all their products made using their waterless technique (that reduces up to 96 percent of the water normally used in denim finishing and conserving 10 billion litres of water) by this year.

Water is not the only concern. Labour practices have also been called into question as more and more people ask: “Who made my clothes”? The movement began as a campaign started by two women, Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers in the UK in 2013. The challenge to stop ignoring workers’ rights was fuelled by the collapse of Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh, where over 1 000 workers were killed and many more injured.

Closer to home, third party supplier factories to Levi’s have recently been implicated in an ongoing gender-based violence and harassment scandal in Lesotho. And we know how slavery and exploitation is inseparable from the history of cotton production.

Though denim has had a serious impact on the environment, there are a few brands committed to changing its legacy.

Your favourite ethical brands in SA

1. Tshepo Jeans: All the leftover pieces of denim and off-cuts are shredded and reused to make new fabric and thread. Their fabric and partner factory in Mauritius has a certificate of compliance from the Institute for Ethical and Environmental Certification.

2. Woolworths: A Daily Maverick article on the case for sustainable denim says: “In 2014, Woolworths teamed up with WWF SA and Green House to find the most sustainable way to produce jeans for their business, and in 2016 Woolworths joined the Better Cotton Initiative. Since then, Woolworths has radically transformed its fashion business and over 80% of the cotton sourced is from sustainable sources, such as BCI. What this means for the chain’s RE: jeans offering is that it has become far more sustainable, with the majority of the range now incorporating BCI.” And instead of using techniques like sandblasting to achieve a distressed look (a chemically intensive process that poses serious health risks to workers) they use laser technology to create abrasions, tears and breakages on denim.

3. Jeanius Platform: Started by Langa-based creative Anele Cephus Nono as a social movement in 2016, according to Twyg, the brands make wearable artwork. When they use denim, they use Tingercor fabric dye, but are planning to learn about natural vegetable dyes.

4. Floyd Avenue Apparel: Fashion designer Morapedi Floyd Manotoana (who took part in Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Berlin earlier this year) uses raw denim, which reduces the amount of water and chemicals needed to make a pair of jeans.

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